Cucho Hernández, then competing in the English Premier League for Watford, had just scored an overhead-kick golazo against Arsenal at Vicarage Road.
At that point, Tim Bezbatchenko, the Columbus Crew’s president and general manager, was convinced their pursuit of the No. 9 would fizzle out.
“We texted each other on our scouting chain and just said, ‘There goes our ability to get Cucho,’” Bezbatchenko outlined to MLSsoccer.com. “ … When he was getting hot in the spring of last year, we thought for sure there's no way to get him.”
But the Crew, anticipating they might trade striker Gyasi Zardes within MLS and would need a Designated Player-level replacement, stayed consistent in their approach. Bezbatchenko, determined to land their dream target, even connected with Watford owner Gino Pozzo – “one thing that happens in deals is if you can get the right people talking at the club, then there's more trust that happens,” he explained.
They recognized Watford, about to get relegated to the Championship, would likely have to sell João Pedro and Cucho to create funds and readjust financially for the second tier. Several trips to England and in-depth meetings later – "once we tell players our story and what we're about with our project and our ownership, our history, that's the hook," Bezbatchenko said – Cucho went to the Crew and João Pedro, eventually, returned to England’s top flight at Brighton & Hove Albion.
What Bezbatchenko, assistant GM Issa Tall and director of scouting/player recruitment Neil McGuinness initially viewed as a “blue sky deal or maybe not possible” transformed into a club-record deal for a reported $10 million transfer fee. The Crew had their man.
“He's met expectations because when you make a historic signing, you're probably at least talking 15-plus goals a year,” Bezbatchenko said. “But then you're looking for other contributions and assists, right? It can't just be about goals. It has to be goals and assists and the space that you create for others, which I think you're seeing now with Diego Rossi is how much space Diego has because Cucho creates that space.”
Bezbatchenko's reflections come as Cucho, a 2023 MLS Best XI presented by Continental Tire forward, leads the Crew into Saturday’s MLS Cup presented by Audi final at Lower.com Field (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free). The Eastern Conference winners will host defending league champions and Western Conference winners LAFC, looking to lift the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy.
And while plenty else has propelled Columbus to this point – hiring head coach Wilfried Nancy away from CF Montréal last December, selling Lucas Zelarayán in the summer and replacing him with Rossi, trading for Julian Gressel and Rudy Camacho midsummer, et cetera – the biggest turning point, arguably, was formally acquiring their talisman on June 21, 2022.
Cucho finished the 2023 regular season with 27 goal contributions (16g/11a), tied for the third-most in MLS. Now, he’s the highest scorer in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs with 4g/2a and has become a true star – bringing production, flair, swagger and more.
With Cucho back in Colombia’s national team for World Cup qualifiers, Bezbatchenko said “it's probably a matter of time” before they receive a transfer bid from abroad. Nothing formal, Bezbatchenko clarifies, has come through just yet on their cornerstone player. They’re not intending to sell him, either.
“I think our league, none of us are naive to think that we're at the top of the food chain in some ways,” Bezbatchenko said. “So we have to be prepared to build around him, but also there's going to be interest in him. We will prepare for both scenarios.
“I hope he's here for a long time. He's a fantastic character, he's a great teammate, he's the face of the club in many ways. But he also does it the right way. And, at the same time, that's why he draws interest from some of the top clubs around the world.”
One in, one out
That dialogue might cause Crew fans to flashback to July 31, when the club announced Zelarayán, one of MLS’ premier playmakers, had been transferred to Saudi Pro League side Al Fateh for an undisclosed fee. Zelarayán was their No. 10 and Cucho’s partner in crime, a “special player” and their “signature signing” of a new era under new owners – highlighted by an MVP performance in the Crew’s MLS Cup 2020 victory over Seattle Sounders FC.
But the decision to sell the Armenian international increased temperatures among supporters; it was easy to envision a scenario where biding farewell to Zelarayán would be the turning point where Columbus’ promising revival under Nancy fizzled out. Yet Bezbatchenko, confident they could bring Rossi back to MLS from Turkish powerhouse side Fenerbahçe (he played for LAFC from 2018-21) trusted the pieces would fall into place.
“They're obviously not like for like, but the ability to get a former MLS Golden Boot winner and MVP finalist was something where we said that the time could be right because it was also an opportunity for Lucas,” Bezbatchenko said. “ … Saudi Arabia is a place where a lot of the top talent in the world is looking at right now. The timing was right. We were prepared.”
The first domino went public hours before Columbus’ Leagues Cup game against Liga MX powerhouse Club América, a 4-1 victory that suggested the club’s trajectory wouldn’t veer off course. Cucho led the way with 2g/1a and Zelarayán was honored pre-game before jetting off for the Middle East.
"He brought you something that few players in this league can do," Bezbatchenko said of Zelarayán, acquired in December 2019 from Liga MX's Tigres UANL for reportedly nearly $8 million. "When he scores the goal in Chicago from over half field, you're pinching yourself because that's worth the price of admission and more."
The second domino fell two days later, on Aug. 2, just as the MLS Secondary Transfer Window was closing. In hindsight, Bezbatchenko wishes both announcements could have been made concurrently.
“We understood that it was going to upset the fans, but sometimes that's why we're in this seat, is to make those difficult decisions,” Bezbatchenko said. “We're hopefully seeing around the corner a little bit and people will understand once they see the full picture.
“And what Diego brings to the team is not just his ability to score goals like we saw in special moments like the last game in Cincinnati,” Bezbatchenko continued. “But his capacity, his sheer work rate, his ability to run 11, 12, 13 kilometers a match and then combine with Cucho – that's special. I think he can still raise it to another level, as you said, but he brings so much to the team in the way that we and Wilfried cohesively want to defend and attack and be on the front foot.”
Rossi, a 25-year-old Uruguay international, has quickly integrated with 5g/6a in 15 matches across the regular season and playoffs. He’s a DP alongside Cucho and club captain Darlington Nagbe, stepping up with crucial goals like last weekend’s Hell is Real equalizer in the Eastern Conference Final that preceded Christian Ramirez’s extra-time winner.
A new vision
Rossi is just one example of Columbus, on the fly, finding solutions under Nancy, their new French manager whose bold approach has captivated the league since he steered Montréal to a club-record year in 2022.
Bezbatchenko, understandably, was among those impressed by Nancy’s success north of the border. So when it came time to find a new leader last fall – the club parted ways with Caleb Porter immediately after a playoff-less 2022 season, ending a four-year era – Columbus made the unprecedented step of compensating Montréal to extract their head coach.
Bezbatchenko, channeling a lesson learned from longtime MLS executive Tim Leiweke, went “all out” to get someone he felt could be a game-changer for the club. Now a two-time Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year finalist, Nancy has proven well worth the investment.
“In one word it's bravery and also a commitment to purpose,” Bezbatchenko said, describing Nancy’s style. “And I don't think Wilfried was going to leave Montréal for just any project. So I'll start with this idea that we knew we wanted to move toward what we call a club-centered approach where we're aligning the vision for the top down. That's not different than a lot of clubs are trying to do around the world, but you need the right people to do it.
“You talk about purpose, but then you also give people the autonomy and the belief that they can do what they want to do with the team and support them and challenge them at the same time. And I think Wilfried, from the first time I talked to him about this project, he talked about how we're going to be not only entertaining, but we're going to do it in a way where we show courage and belief in a certain style. I think that you're seeing that reflected in what's happening on the pitch and also his words.”
Nancy, who’s become a media darling of sorts, entrusts his players to play a front-foot, attacking style. Often deployed in a 3-4-2-1 formation, Columbus scored a league-leading 67 goals this year and held a league-high 56.7% possession in their matches. They’d often throw numbers forward, sometimes at risk of defensive solidity, but were firmly committed to Nancy’s game model.
Along the way, several players have raised their level or adapted to new roles. Young goalkeeper Patrick Schulte seized the starting job, resulting in a mutual contract termination for veteran Eloy Room in mid-July. Homegrown midfielder Aidan Morris has risen to MLS All-Star status while playing alongside Nagbe, who can win a fourth MLS Cup title this weekend. Alexandru Matan, who seemed destined to be a subpar signing after last year’s loan to Romanian side Rapid București, has been reborn. Steven Moreira and Malte Amundsen, fullbacks by trade, have become hybrid center backs. Ramirez, a veteran striker, has enjoyed his best MLS season since 2017 with Minnesota United FC.
The list goes on and on.
“The way Wilfried talks about the game is how he lives his life,” Bezbatchenko said. “You know that it comes from a place of honesty and authenticity. And if you're around him, it's contagious. Everyone starts to become a better person because you know that people are pushing to do something differently.
“I think we work in an industry that's characterized oftentimes by fear and by winning the next game on Saturday. Whereas, if you can get to a place, and I know it's aspirational, where you're thinking beyond that and thinking about something a little bit bigger, that's what Wilfried brings to the table. He's able to not just communicate it, but to get the others around him believing in that. That's when the magic happens.”
Columbus are doing all this – developing stars, promoting MLS NEXT Pro talent, acquiring league veterans – on a mid-level budget. Their game-changing coach, overseeing a roster that’s purposefully gotten “younger and more dynamic, more flexible tactically,” acts as a force multiplier for everyone around him.
“We're not going to be a top-10 budget in the league, but we're also not going to be a bottom-10. Our goal is to be spending in sort of this 10 to 12 range in the league,” Bezbatchenko explained. “So that gives you, within the league rules and the structure, the ability to go out and get a Lucas Zelarayán or a Cucho Hernández.
“But also not go crazy and be like some other clubs where I've been before,” Bezbatchenko said, referencing his Toronto FC days. “Because different pressures come with that and it becomes sometimes about more than what you're trying to do on the field when you have all the stars. Within all that, Wilfried felt he could also take his coaching to a new level in this different, new environment.”
Add up each piece and Columbus, remarkably, are on the verge of their third MLS Cup title in 15 years after previously winning in 2008 and 2020. If they beat LAFC, they’ll trail just D.C. United (four) and LA Galaxy (five) for the most MLS Cups in league history.
That 2020 match, in particular, will be referenced at length this week. It was the year the league returned to play via the MLS is Back Tournament, a July/August gathering at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida. That bubble-like environment, necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, was an eerie time.
As the regular season continued, then playoffs began in late November, Columbus emerged as MLS Cup hosts on a Dec. 12 evening at what was then called Mapfre Stadium (now Historic Crew Stadium). Zelarayán scored twice and assisted on Derrick Etienne Jr.’s goal, vanquishing the Sounders 3-0.
But the game was only played before 1,500 fans due to health precautions.
“We were all living in extraordinary circumstances,” Bezbatchenko said. “So I think everyone was just feeling fortunate that we were able to restart the league and be hosting playoffs at all, given that some leagues weren't able to do that.
“… Now looking back, we've talked about it over the years how we weren't able to share in the moment fully with our fan base, a fan base that has gone through so much, through the turmoils with the Save The Crew movement.”
That experience arrives Saturday, giving the Crew – an MLS original club from the 1996 season – their moment in the sun at Lower.com Field, the state-of-the-art, soccer-specific stadium that opened in July 2021. It’s a deserving reward for a club that quietly trailblazes in MLS, sometimes flying under the radar.
“The way our fans have shown up – 17 sellouts this year, 16 straight – it’s amazing,” Bezbatchenko said. “The Crew have always had some good support, but we've never hit the support in terms of season ticket members that we're seeing now. So we’re just excited that our ownership, they put a stake in the ground when they came and said, ‘Hey, we're going to build a club that this city can be proud of.’ They’ve delivered.”
For Bezbatchenko, an Ohio native, this journey is also rewarding on a personal note. He went to high school only “four or five miles down the road” and his parents are day-one season ticket members who sit right at midfield. His 92-year-old grandmother drives down with his uncle from nearby Akron for every home game, too.
Which prompts perhaps the question: Does his grandmother get to hold the trophy if Columbus beat LAFC?
“It's funny, all she wants to do is hug Darlington,” Bezbatchenko said. “She's an Akron Zips fan, so she's known Darlington since he was playing there, even before. She'll probably go straight for him rather than the trophy. But absolutely, if we were lucky to have that moment, it would be great if she could hold it.”